The same day that Alberta set new daily records for new COVID-19 infections and positivity rates, the province’s education minister and chief medical officer of health announced children from kindergarten to Grade 12 will return to in-person learning next week.
“Experts across Canada and around the world continue to stress the importance of in-person learning to the overall health of our children and our youth,” Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said at a news conference on Wednesday. “I, myself, have heard overwhelmingly from families that learning in person is best for children.
“Most children feel more connected, they learn better and generally thrive when they are at school in person. This is why Alberta’s government has placed such a priority on safe in-classroom instruction and on making sure that our schools have the tools that they need.”
LaGrange said before coming with the province’s plan to return students to in-person learning, her government looked at decisions being made by other jurisdictions like in British Columbia and Manitoba.
Last week, LaGrange announced Alberta was extending the student winter break provincewide and that students wouldn’t return to class until Jan. 10. She said this was to allow schools and school divisions to assess what is needed to resume in-person learning safely and to prepare accordingly.
“Once again, the shifting nature of the virus required all of us to pause and re-evaluate the best path forward for the second half of the school year” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said at Wednesday’s news conference. “We all know the impacts that being away from the classroom can have on our children’s mental health, learning and social interaction.
“We know that COVID(-19) infection has a low but not zero risk for children. We also know that in-person learning is critically important for many kids’ educational and social development and can provide a sense of stability and normalcy in these challenging times.
“There are no perfect, completely risk-free solutions available to us or any jurisdiction around the world and I believe the provincial approach balances the many competing risks that our children face.”
Hinshaw said it is critically important for staff and students at schools to stay home if they experience any symptoms of illness.
Hinshaw noted Alberta Health Services no longer has the capacity to inform parents and students of COVID-19 infections in classes and schools and outside of unique circumstances, cases at schools will no longer be investigated. She said priority for close-contact notifications and case investigations is now being given to high-risk settings like continuing care homes.
“Given the changes we’ve made to our testing protocols and contact notification process in light of the Omicron variant… we will be moving to a different approach to school reporting that reflects the current situation,” Hinshaw said, noting that students and staff will still be given test results for their own COVID-19 tests.
Hinshaw noted the province is assessing what changes could be made to COVID-19 reporting practices at schools and that she would share information once further decisions have been made.
To support a return to in-class learning while spread of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues, the Alberta government is providing school divisions with shipments of rapid test kits and medical-grade masks beginning next week. More shipments will occur down the road in phases, LaGrange said.
The minister noted her ministry will continue working with school authorities on shifts to at-home learning when needed. She said school authorities continue to have the power to shift a class or individual grade to short-term, at-home learning if facing “operational challenges.” Her department will still need to give permission should any school board seek to shift an entire school or school division to at-home learning.
LaGrange noted that school authorities are working to address any staffing shortages linked to COVID-19 spread over the holidays. When asked if the province may consider allowing teachers who test positive for COVID-19 to continue instructing students if staffing shortages become a major issue, LaGrange said the idea was not being considered at this time. She noted that with the duration of self-isolation requirements being reduced for people who test positive for COVID-19, she believes that will result in reduced absenteeism among staff and students at schools.
Reaction to in-person learning announcement
Following LaGrange’s news conference, Opposition education critic Sarah Hoffman issued a statement calling the measures LaGrange announced to support a return to class “completely inadequate.”
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“There are specific measures that our NDP caucus has described that would help keep students safer in the classroom but the UCP has done none of them,” she said. “There are similar measures that other Canadian provinces have announced to promote safer learning in the classroom and the UCP have not done any of these things either.
“No HEPA filters. No N95 masks. No carbon dioxide monitors. No contact tracing. No reporting to parents if their child was sitting next to another student with a positive test that day. No funding for the inevitable demand for additional staff. The UCP plan is setting schools up to close.”
Jason Schilling, the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, addressed reporter questions via video conference late Wednesday afternoon.
“Anxiety level is high but we know teachers want to be in school,” he said. “If prioritizing in-person learning is important to the government, then you have to prioritize making schools as safe as possible. That not only includes the students who learn in our schools, but also the adults who work in those buildings. (That’s) especially important on the day that we get record high numbers in cases and a record high positivity rate.
“However, the premier says that they’re doing everything they can to keep kids in school and it’s just simply not true.”
Schilling said he would like HEPA air filtration, upgraded masking and clear isolation requirements to be a priority. He also said more data should be made available regarding COVID-19 transmission, including in schools.
Schilling added he fears the government has not learned from the past when teacher and student absenteeism because of COVID-19 resulted in classes having to be shifted online. He said the ATA would like to see more proactive hiring of substitute teachers on contracts to address potential staffing shortages.
“The availability of teachers and staff will be a significant concern,” he said. “We should have learned from the mistakes of the past.
“I fear, along with many of my colleagues, that we will see schools have to move online again.”
Schilling also said it was unacceptable that some schools may not receive their first shipment of rapid COVID-19 tests or medical-grade masks from the government until late next week, once classes have already started.
“There’s a lot on teachers’ plates right now,” he said.
Hoffman also suggested some of the advice being offered to Albertans in general by the province’s chief medical officer of health seems to be in conflict with the return-to-class plan.
“It’s truly bizarre to hear Dr. Hinshaw tell Albertans that community transmission has never been higher at any point and that we must all reduce our daily contacts and then see the UCP send kids back to school without any of the protection that other Canadian students are receiving.”
On Tuesday, Alberta’s Opposition called on the United Conservative government to provide better COVID-19 supports for students when they return to class.
Hoffman said the government needs to provide more information on projected absenteeism and infection rates in schools so staff have a better idea what they’re facing.
At the time, Hoffman said the more effective N95 masks must be made available to staff and students along with high-efficiency air filters for schools to reduce the airborne spread of Omicron.
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During her news conference, LaGrange said the government has tried to help school boards address concerns related to air ventilation in schools through a $120-million increase in operating funding for school authorities in the 2020-21 school year and $250 million in accelerated capital maintenance and renewal funding during the 2020-21 school year, in addition to tens of millions of dollars in funding to address COVID-19.
Free tutoring resources being offered to Alberta Grade 4 to Grade 9 students
On Wednesday, the Alberta government also announced that students in grades 4 to 9 will be able to access free online tutoring resources through the “e-Tutoring Hub.”
The initiative is aimed at helping students “catch up on important skills” and to help those whose learning has fallen behind over the course of the pandemic. The tutoring hub will be launched in the form of pre-recorded video sessions on limited subject matter but will be expanded later this year to include more subjects and live tutoring.
–With a file from Caley Ramsay, Global News